It’s About the Business Not About the Technology


Summer Camp, or Bar Camp, events can be incredibly useful and informative.

Summer Camp, or Bar Camp, events can be incredibly useful and informative.

Recently an informative and interesting technical event on virtualization provided confirmation for a truism about technology and business. First and foremost technology is only a means to an end – not an end in itself.   Of course this observation isn’t limited to my technical colleagues because business people can become just as enamored with the “technology du jour” as any hardcore technologist.

The event was organized using the summer camp, or bar bamp, method where the participants themselves decide the topics and then lead the discussion. There were roughly 100-120 really smart technical people in attendance sharing lots of knowledge. Never having attended a “summer camp” style event before, I came away impressed both with the planning and the event itself and would whole-heartedly recommend the format for future events, attend one if you can. For more info about bar camp see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BarCamp .

Back to my observations. In a room full of very smart techies with significant expertise it seemed like the basic goals of business were being completely forgotten or ignored during the discussions about technology. Of course business people can be just as susceptible to the “deer in the headlights technology syndrome” in that they forget about the business processes that the technology was supposed to improve. So they end up spending most of their time and budget on the HW/SW portion of the project, but very little on process improvement or training or … you get the idea.

Again and again technical questions were asked without any context with which to understand them. “What’s the best….?”  “Which software should I use?”  “Is program X good with hardware Y?” and so on.  People did come to learn armed with questions and it was a technical event yet most of my fellow attendees forgot a cardinal rule of business – “What are you trying to achieve?” or “What problem are you trying to solve or prevent?”  As a group we struggled to answer the completely open ended technical questions sounding like a room full of economists saying “one hand you have X, but on the other hand you have Y”.  Providing further evidence that President Truman was onto something in his quest for a one-armed economist.

Finally after going around in circles for far too long I made a suggestion in hopes of  having a productive discussion. I suggested why don’t we build a straw-man company with a series of typical small business attributes/problems and discuss some possible technical solutions relative to their business concerns. It was amazing how much more productive the resulting questions and answers were when people began using the same context when discussing the possible technology solutions. 

We quickly came to an agreement that for small businesses running only two small servers there really is no significant benefit to virtualization – at least as far as performance and cost is concerned. But if you factor in disaster recovery capabilities – something most small businesses can’t afford to pay for or architect – virtualization becomes a huge benefit and I can’t imagine implementing a small business solution that doesn’t include a virtualization component for this very reason.

And those same benefits would apply to large enterprises with lots of small regional offices as well. Typically these offices have a small server or two to simplify authentication, software distribution, printing and maybe some small local databases. But with a little forethought those servers can be virtualized and suddenly recovery times can now be measured in minutes instead of hours or days. Sure costs increase somewhat for the hardware and software, but those slightly increased costs greatly reduce the risk of business downtime and lost productivity due to server failure.

Back to the sessions. I don’t want to single out the attendees at this event because it’s not only technical people who lose sight of the business needs when confronted with technology choices. I’ve seen people from all parts of companies make decisions, allocate funds, spin up projects and retain consultants without clear, measurable or attainable business goals beyond implementing the newest whiz-bang technology.

For example one client, who shall remain forever nameless for obvious reasons, was tasked with implementing a CRM system for a small sales force of about 20 sales people. Historically companies in similar situations would choose a solution that was easy to administer, cost-effective and appropriate for an organization of their size. This client chose to ignore all three of those criteria. Instead of going with Goldmine, Microsoft Dynamics,  Salesforce.com or even Sugar CRM,  all of which would have been perfect for client’s needs, the client chose Pivotal.

Now Pivotal may be a fine software package, but it you have a sales force of less than 20 people – you can probably achieve everything you need with Excel or some other contact management package without dropping much, if any, money. Instead this client chose to drop over $200,000 all combined on hardware, software, training, customization and consulting. Maybe it was worth it for that client, but having an industrial strength CRM package when you only have to track a few sales each month seems to miss the point that technology is there to serve the business, not the other way around. Needless to say that client has never turned a profit for their investors. And that particular CRM implementation was abandoned because it was too costly to maintain given their business needs.

This brings me back to the beginning. Whether it’s technology, or staffing, or training or who knows what, the business has to be the main thing, and everyone’s job in the company, or organization, is to keep the main thing the main thing. If a new technology can help the business do something cheaper, faster or better, by all means implement it. But if the only reason you are deploying Super Whamy-dyne version 17.X is because everyone else is doing it, ask yourself could this time and money be better spent elsewhere – more often than not the answer is yes.

Do you have any stories about techies or businesses being blinded by technology and losing sight of their real business? If so, let me know. – Thom

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